Part 4: Building, Selling, and Shopping the Lines

The Weak Magnet of Early Suburban Schools

Formerly the “Western Division” of the capital city, West Hartford took on a stronger suburban identity with its residential housing boom in the 1920s. Over 300 building permits for one- and two-family homes were issued in West Hartford in 1922, more than any other municipality in the entire state of Connecticut. Moreover, the total number that year was greater than the previous two years combined.[1] Linked by convenient trolley lines to the corporate headquarters for the nation’s leading insurance and banking industries in the adjacent capital city, West Hartford seemed primed to become an ideal destination for the rising middle class. The town was the first in the state to embrace a more modernized form of local government (an elected council with an appointed manager) and adopt a comprehensive zoning plan, and it began to offer local police, fire, and road services that resembled those of the nearby city.[2]

But what West Hartford lacked, in the eyes of its beholders, was a quality public school system. A somber report, conducted in 1922-23 by the State Department of Education at the request of local school superintendent Lloyd Bugbee, concluded that West Hartford’s public school system was mediocre in several respects and did not live up to the town’s potential. The fundamental problem was unmanaged growth, as West Hartford had transformed from a nineteenth-century agricultural town into a residential suburban community. The steep increase in home building and population created severely overcrowded schools, run by an administrative system more suitable for a rural township than a modern school district.

West Hartford had fallen behind on both educational resources and outcomes. State officials judged the current high school building — which lacked a library, auditorium, and gymnasium — to be “unsatisfactory from practically every standpoint.” Only a tiny fraction of West Hartford’s high school graduates entered colleges requiring admissions examinations (2 percent), compared to higher rates in the state overall (5.5 percent) or New England (4 percent).[3] On the elementary level, 3 out of 7 schools enrolled so many pupils that they operated on half-day sessions, which did not fulfill the state’s minimum requirement of four hours of instruction per day. On standardized tests, West Hartford elementary student performance did not impress. For example, on the 4th grade arithmetic exam, the district averaged a score of 17, just 1 percentage point (or 8 percent) above the “standard” score of 16.

Statistically, West Hartford had not failed. But the district had not yet risen up to its potential, according to the survey authors. “There seems no good reason for the West Hartford schools to be satisfied with merely achieving standard results,” they wrote. “Their system is potentially above the average.” Furthermore, they ventured that the residents of this newly suburbanized district demanded more. “We judge from the nature of the community that superior schools are the desire of the people.”[4] Given the sharp increase in new homes, West Hartford enjoyed a larger property tax base and could afford to spend more on its school facilities, if its elected officials exercised the political will to do so. In their present condition in 1923, West Hartford schools were not yet the magnet that eventually would attract residents from the central city. Other “pull factors” such as more affordable and attractive housing were quickly becoming more influential, but not suburban public schools.

By contrast, the city of Hartford’s public school system was still widely recognized as the best in the metropolitan region during the interwar years. In 1937, a prominent survey led by George Strayer of Teachers College declared, “Hartford is to be commended for maintaining the ‘gold standard’ of its college preparatory students,” and noted that “The reputation of the secondary schools of Hartford. . . is widely and favorably known through eastern collegiate circles.”[5] The flagship institution was Hartford Public High School, the second oldest public high school in the nation, widely recognized for both its classical and commercial curricula.[6] Middle-class parents who sought a quality secondary school education (and perhaps a college education), enabling their children to advance in the labor market, looked to the city of Hartford school system and its advantages over its suburban competitors.

  1. Connecticut State Board of Education, A Survey of the Schools of West Hartford (Hartford: Author, 1923), p. 103.
  2. Nelson R. Burr, From Colonial Parish to Modern Suburb: A Brief Appreciation of West Hartford (Noah Webster Foundation and Historical Society of West Hartford, 1976).
  3. A Survey of the Schools of West Hartford, pp. 76, 87, 103, 72.
  4. A Survey of the Schools of West Hartford, p. 69, 30.
  5. Columbia University. Teachers College. Institute of Educational Research. Division of Field Studies, The Hartford Public Schools in 1936-37: A Comprehensive Report of the Survey of the Public Schools of Hartford, Connecticut (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1937), pamphlet XI, p. 13.
  6. Catalogue of the Hartford Public High School : Doce, Disce, Aut Discede; Tercentenary edition, 1638-1938 ([Hartford, Conn.]: Hartford Press, 1941).